Schooners and dragons afloat on the Flores Sea

Komodo hosts a unique species and maritime culture, writes IAN LLOYD NEUBAUER

For centuries, traditional phinisi boats were used for transport, fishing and raiding around the Indonesian archipelago, and to explore as far south as Australia and as far north as Vietnam.

Twin-masted schooners with elongated bowsprits and seven sails, made from ironwood by the seafaring Bugis people of South Sulawesi with cues cribbed from Portuguese and Dutch colonial ships, phinisis’ design has been added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

During World War II, steel ships with diesel engines replaced Indonesia’s fleet of wooden boats.

And there the phinisi would have died if not for South-East Asia’s tourism boom. Nearly 16 million people visited Indonesia last year, 10 per cent specifically for marine tourism.

From this colourful backstory comes a new breed of phinisi that allows tourists to cruise between the 17,504 islands of Indonesia in vessels that look like they belong in the 16 century but come outfitted with 21st century comfort and technology.

The fleet’s mainstay lies at Labuan Bajo on the mainland island of Flores, an hour’s flight from Bali — gateway to the world-famous Komodo National Park. Phinisis don’t come cheap. They cost upwards of a million dollars to build and need crews of five to 20 people to sail.

Chartering a phinisi costs thousands per day and is out of reach for most holidaymakers.

But when a group of friends or a few families pool their money, the exercise becomes affordable — and quite worthwhile...

This is an edited version of the original, full-length story, which you can read here.

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